West Ham currently have the best crop of young players we’ve had in decades according to joint chairman David Gold.
Speaking exclusively to Blowing Bubbles Monthly, Gold sought to clarify his views about the situation regarding our Academy of Football and promising youngsters such as Reece Oxford, Josh Cullen who have failed to break into the first team and have instead been loaned out to lower-league sides.
West Ham came joint bottom in a table of Premier League clubs and minutes they’d given to teenagers last season and when responding to questions on social media over the club’s record of trusting youth, Gold replied: ‘I think we all have to accept that it is extremely unlikely that a teenager will break into a PL team full of seasoned internationals [sic].
‘Playing teenagers doesn’t guarantee success. Hull came fifth in number of youngsters played and got relegated. Chelsea came last and won the league.
‘Sam [Allardyce] played the teenagers at Nottingham Forest (in 2014) and we got beat 5-0. Teenagers gain experience by going out on loan to the first (or) second division and the Championship.’
But following West Ham’s final day victory against Burnley, Gold said: ‘I feel like my tweets were misrepresented and that people read it as me referring to just West Ham – I wasn’t. I was talking about the Premier League as a whole In the old days, more teenagers would’ve got more chances because you didn’t have Italians, Germans, Spaniards, and Brazilians all coming to play in the Premier League.
‘When Bobby Moore played for West Ham, the First Division had 99 per cent British players but today the Premier League has about 30 per cent. That speaks volumes.
‘It means we only have the very best because the whole standard has gone up so high that young players can’t get a look in.
‘In 1980 West Ham played Paul Allen in the FA Cup final. He was just 16 years old and that would not happen in a million years today.
‘What is happening is the age of these young players getting into the first team has risen because a 20-year-old Paul Allen is a better player than a 16-year-old Paul Allen. Back in the 80s he got in the team but today he wouldn’t until he was 20.
‘It’s no good our fans beating us up and I know they’d like me to say we’re doing it wrong and we should be doing what they say and play the kids but as I pointed out on Twitter, we played them against Forest in the FA Cup and got beat 5-0.
‘But I really do believe we’ve got the best crop of players that we’ve had in my tenure here. And when you look at what was achieved prior to us, this is the best crop of players we’ve had in the last ten years – you could go even further back.
‘Now the reason people are getting irritated is that they are saying they are teenagers and should be getting their chance.
‘But they’ve got their chance. They are playing in front of thousands of people at Bradford or Oxford. They are not playing in front of 200 people for the under 23s.
‘They are playing in proper stadiums and people are playing for their lives – for their livelihood. It’s tough playing in the first and second divisions and it’s a fantastic learning curve for our youngsters.
‘If they can survive these challenges and come back a smarter, more battle-hardened player, then they’ve got every chance of breaking and staying in the first team but it’s much harder as they are up against seasoned internationals.’
Gold described the season as a massive rollercoaster – pointing to the final month of the season as one of many examples of this up and down ride.
‘We had the magnificent win against Spurs where you could see the fans were up for it, we were desperate to beat them and most of all, Slaven and the team were desperate to beat them too.
‘Despite at that time having several key players injured or unavailable, to beat Spurs, it just felt like we would end the season on a high but then we got murdered by Liverpool.
‘That’s the ups and downs of West Ham United Football Club. Just when you think you’re on the up, something happens to bring you back down. But then we ended on a high in our final game of the season against Burnley.
‘We had even more players out than we had against Spurs and Liverpool but we put in a gusty end-of-season performance against a team which had one of the best home records in the division. We played so well on the day and to come away with all three points, was very pleasing.’
While Gold’s favourite moment of the season, unsurprisingly, was our win against Spurs at the start of May, his biggest disappointment wasn’t the hammerings we endured at London Stadium but off the pitch and the Dimitri Payet saga.
‘I first I became aware there was a problem was when he started to put on weight,’ he explained. ‘I get stats sent to me on a regular basis and you could see that he had put on around six pounds over a period. It was all hugely disappointing
‘We did everything in our power to keep him. He was our highest paid player, he got a loyalty bonus, his children were in the academy, everything he wanted, we gave him.
‘But sometimes that’s not enough and there’s nothing you can do. As soon as the other players start to feel unhappy about it as well, you got to get out of it.
‘Out of all the issues we had last season, the biggest single issue that will have the most impact long-term was Payet. Our injuries will hopefully be for just one season but for the next four or five years we will miss his talents.
‘We have, however, got to move on, and in Manuel Lanzini I feel like we have. From the moment he arrived, you could see there was something special.
‘He is only 24, and he’ll be an even better player when he is 25, 26, and 27. He knows he is a good player but his confidence is building and will continue to grow.’
Gold is anticipating a long and busy summer ahead with the club seeking ‘three or four quality signings’.
‘We’ve had lists from Slaven and Tony [Henry, Head of Recruitment] and they’ve agreed our top targets,’ Mr Gold continued. ‘The biggest problem we have is ensuring we get the players at the top of our list.
‘Just say we have a shortlist of four strikers and we just want one. The list will be in order and then two weeks into the transfer window, the fourth best says they’ll come and we’ll try to stall because, quite frankly, we want the player at the top of the list.
‘Then, and I’m making this up, the first one signs for Chelsea but you are still left with the second and third on the list to chase but you’ve got the careful not to end up with none.
‘Fans say to us “just pay him and the club what they want” but it’s an incredibly difficult process and you don’t want to bankrupt yourself on one player that gets injured or turns out to be like Zaza.’ And Gold reiterated the club’s policy of ‘taking out insurance’ on potential transfers by signing them on loan first has saved the club millions.
‘Just imagine if we had bought Zaza for £25m. What would have the fans said? But when we got him on the loan, the fans went potty because it was only a loan.
‘But we had an agreement to pay £25m if he played 14 games and had he proven himself and we’d signed him permanently, it would’ve cost more like £30m so we are spending more by taking players on loan first but we’d rather have the insurance when dealing with players we have any doubt about or paying a huge sum of money for, particularly for a player from abroad.’
As for a war chest this summer, Gold wouldn’t be drawn on revealing a figure but believes the club now has enough money to bring in the players required.
‘When we first arrived, as I’ve told you before, we put our own money in and I think that tells you a lot about what we are prepared to do for the club.
‘But we’ve always said that we need to be self-sufficient and self-sustainable and we are there, and have enough money to bring in the players we need to.
‘At this moment in time, we can’t bring in a player for £50m. The reason for that is he is clearly the best player in the world for that position and therefore is going to sign for Chelsea or Barcelona or Madrid.
‘What we’ve got to do is position ourselves at the top of the “best of the rest”. Then one day we will be able to join and compete with those at the top.
‘Last year, I can’t remember exactly how many players we bought in but we only need three or four this summer so we can spend more money on fewer players.
‘If you are spending £40m on several players, compared to £40m on, say, two players, there’s clearly going to be a difference in the quality.’
Gold admits his minimum expectation for West Ham last season was to finish 11th but admits there was a time when they were talking about finishing eighth – or even higher.
‘But who could believe not only the number of injuries that we had last season but the operations players need.
‘We’re all used to seeing players have tweaks in their groin or hamstring and being out for a game or two but we had Sam Byram and Michail Antonio need operations on their hamstrings. I’ve never, in all my time in football, known this to happen in one season.
‘But every time we were really down and depressed, Slaven and the team pulled something special out of the bag like beating Crystal Palace 3-0, winning a very important game at home to Swansea, beating Spurs, or winning the last game of the season against one of the best home sides in the division.
‘That’s what Slaven gives you. When you are down in the dumps, he gets you back up. We had a season of bad luck as most of the season we were top of the league for injuries or for minutes lost through injuries.
‘The strangest thing from last season, right the way through the season, was that I always felt that as soon as we had a couple of players back from injury we’d be a different side.
‘But just as we’d get a couple of key players back, we’d lose others. It felt like, at times, things were going from bad to worse and we were beginning to curse our luck rather than our form.
‘I also felt we didn’t have a great season for decisions – an awful lot went against us and we didn’t get key decisions that I thought were clear.’
As for the owners’ relationship with Slaven Bilic, Gold said their support never wavered.
‘He is always very honest and he accepts constructive criticism. He is probably the nicest manager we’ve worked with – certainly at West Ham.
‘It’s always a pleasure when you see him. He’s not demanding. A lot of managers, when things go wrong, want things or say the reason things are going wrong is because their earlier demands were not being met.
‘But Slaven is very realistic, and a pleasure to work with. I think next season we will all see a different Slaven Bilic.
‘All the off-pitch problems impact him as much as the on-field issues do so while we had to deal with them, solve them and make sure they don’t happen again, it’s another thing he worries about.
‘But issues like segregation and the stewarding are working much better. What you’ll see next season is a much brighter Bilic. He won’t have the Payet situation or the injuries too.
‘He is, by nature, a vibrant man, full of life, and we will see that when he returns with a new hip to boot.’
Gold also hailed captain Mark Noble for playing through the pain barrier towards the end of the campaign – even though he didn’t inform the manager or club about his injury for a period of time.
‘He isn’t called Mr West Ham for nothing and I think he carried on playing with the injury that none of us knew about because he loves this club.
‘He isn’t captain for nothing, or been here for 16 years for nothing. He’s played 400 games and the man has only just turned 30. It’s an extraordinary story.
‘Some fans, not all fans, are very critical if you drop even a couple of per cent in performance, and while we didn’t know about Mark’s injury, we should now be applauding him. He’s a star for turning out when we had so many other key players out.’
Gold admits even now, over a year after the Hammers said farewell to Upton Park, he still receives hurtful messages on Twitter about the decision to leave for Stratford.
‘It was a wrench to leave Upton Park. It really was but didn’t we leave Upton Park in an amazing way?
‘Not only did we beat Manchester United but we came from behind the beat them 3-2. It was quite extraordinary. It wasn’t Stoke – no disrespect to them – wasn’t West Brom or Burnley but Manchester United. It was a great way to leave our home of 112 years.
‘But people today, even to this day, say on Twitter why don’t you go back to
Upton Park and build a 40,000 seater stadium. There are also still people who tweet me that they’ll hate me forever for what we’ve done. But there was no alternative.
‘It was a once in a lifetime opportunity and there it was. We had to go through hoops and jump hurdles to get to the Olympic Stadium.
‘And, right now, it does feel like home to me. It needed to grow on me but I just felt it was the right place to be.
‘What really helped me was that there was no alternative. All the alternatives that you see on social media, none of them were viable. But that’s behind us now. There’s no going back. We must look forward.’ BBM